I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have high hopes for Columbus before I arrived on Thursday.
That’s my own ignorance at play. I didn’t know, for example, that Columbus is actually the biggest city in Ohio (yep, at 1.5 million people, bigger than Cleveland or Cincinnati). I didn’t know that it has a large white collar population, as Columbus is the base for Nationwide Insurance, Limited Brands (which owns Victoria’s Secret), Abercrombie & Fitch and several other Fortune 500 companies. Ohio State University, one of the largest in the country, is also located here.
What that all means is that Columbus has both the means and interest to keep up with trends that are happening on the Coasts. That’s particularly true when it comes to food – the city has all sorts of cute places run by chefs and entrepreneurs who are focused on using local ingredients and seasonal produce in interesting ways
My hosts here for the AAA Great Vacations Expo have kept me well-fed, bringing me to some of the city’s hot spots. Here are just a few of the treats that I’ve experienced since I’ve been here.
Barcelona. This tapas place, built in a former beer hall in Columbus’s adorable German Village neighborhood, is the favorite of one of my friends, Amy Weirick, so we feasted there on Thursday night. And when I say feast, I mean it: between three of us, we sampled a good portion of the menu. Our waiter, Mike T, was one of the more knowledgeable I’ve met lately, and he steered us right. We started with a cheese plate that included a gorgeous La Peral, a cave-aged blue cheese served in a sherry reduction, as well as a plate of Jamon Iberico de Bellota – that ham from an acorn-fed pig that I lived on in the real Barcelona last year. All of this was washed down with a red sangria that met my standards of not being too sweet.
Like most of the diners surrounding us, we ordered a paella among the entrees. It wasn’t the standout, however. That honor went to a dish called “Tres Cerdos,” – basically, pork three ways. Imagine a pork chop wrapped in bacon and filled with chorizo. It was incredibly tender and tasty.
The “vieiras” dish of sauteed scallops served in a cream sauce of bacon, mushroom, dates and baby lima beans also had us oohing and ahing.
Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace. Amy told me that I had to experience this upscale hot dog joint, which has a costume karoake on Monday nights. It was a Friday, so no singing – but the bar, decorated with paintings of rock stars done by the owner’s brother, a Philadelphia artist – was packed with people in their 20s and 30s, drinking local beers and eating franks topped with everything from Korean kim chee to corn relish to cream cheese and chives. I ordered a BLT (again with the bacon – I know, it’s a bad habit), along with sides of tator tots and mac and cheese.
Both the hot dog and tator tots were fantastic – I finished my tots and moved on to my dining companion Thera’s plate. I couldn’t eat the mac and cheese though. It was just a little rich for me. At the manager’s insistence, we finished with a funnel cake and walked out about ready to give birth to a food baby. Bring your appetite if you come here.
Pistacia Vera. When I arrived at my lodging – the amazing Whittier Suites run by the German Village Guesthouse - I was greeted with a lovely wrapped box of colorful macarons. I’m used to the earthy looking macaroons served up in Philly’s Italian bakeries so I was a little flummoxed by these delicate, pastel upper-crust cousins, coming in flavors such as white chocolate coconut, Meyer lemon and orange chestnut. They were delicious, however, so I was happy when Amy took me to the Pistacia Vera store where I could see the cooks in action.
This chef is creating a chocolate bombe cake. As far as those macarons go, let’s just say there won’t be any left for my husband when I get home.
North Market. Any city serious about its food has a fantastic farmers market, and Columbus is no exception. The North Market complex is more Seattle than Sandusky: all of the 35 vendors are independent vendors and merchants who are serious about their ingredients and food. We went after already consuming pastries at Tasi Cafe, so I didn’t think I was hungry.
Enthusiastic vendors offered me samples anyway so I was able to try Jeni’s ice cream, which comes in all sorts of unusual flavors (goat cheese and cherry; smoked carmel, gooey butter cake); waffles from Taste of Belgium (their secret is hunks of beet sugar in the dough) and Pam’s Market Popcorn, where the painful purgatory pepper popcorn was seriously hot.
If I lived in Columbus, I’d be at this market all the time.
I’m heading back to Washington today so I’m not sure how much more I’ll be able to eat (particularly because the Whittier Suites include a stocked kitchen with fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, yogurt and banana bread). But Columbus is now on my radar as a happening place and I’m sure I’ll be back again.
Disclosure: My meals and lodging were paid for by AAA Great Vacations Expo.